I've expressed my admiration for Rick Atkinson's books in the past. His Pulitzer-winning An Army at Dawn is a history of the Allied liberation of Northern Africa, told in a style that glides easily from the the humblest infantryman to the strategies of generals and presidents. He offers the reader a glimpse of what it was like on the ground, while also providing the big picture and dwelling on episodes and campaigns that are merely touched upon in broader histories and television documentaries. (Dawn also inspired me to enlist our readers' help in compiling lists of World War II fiction and nonfiction.)As the second book in Atkinson's Liberation Trilogy, The Day of Battle picks up where Dawn left off as the triumphant Allied troops consolidate their hold on Northern Africa and look to Europe for their next move, which after much strategic horse trading between the Americans and British turns out to be an amphibious invasion of Sicily followed by an advance up the "boot" of Italy, with further amphibious landings along the way.As it turns out, the Italian campaign was brutal and bloody, a halting effort with many stalemates along the way as the Germans dug in and the Allies time and again failed to take advantage of opportunities presented to them. In fact, among the may intriguing side plots that Atkinson covers was whether Lieutenant General Mark Clark's obsession with seeing that American soldiers - and those under his command in particular - were credited for victories undermined the mission at hand. Clark's penchant for victory parade photo ops is unnerving, though he was undoubtedly a talented general. Similarly, the complicated picture painted of Lieutenant General George S. Patton is riveting. "Few acts of corporal punishment would be more scrutinized, analyzed, and condemned than the two slapping incidents on Sicily in August 1943," Atkinson writes of the actions that would derail Patton's legacy, at least for a time, after he struck a pair of soldiers suffering from what we would now describe as post-traumatic stress disorder, who he saw as impugning the valor of more visibly wounded men. It is Atkinson's rich telling of these episodes that make his work so entertaining and instructive. Other highlights - though they were horrors for the men involved - include landing by water at Salerno as well as the grueling back and forth struggle at Cassino and the destruction of the monastery that loomed above it.But readers with an interest in history will likely most value Atkinson's frequent use of the soldiers' own words. "'Someday I hope we shall be able to fight downhill for a change,' a captain in the 16th Infantry wrote his family." "'I'm a little tired,' an Irish Guards sergeant confessed after emerging from the hellish Moletta gullies. 'But then, I'm an old man now.'" "Another befuddled guide also led company A into a minefield. 'We walked as men do in a cow pasture,' said one man, 'placing each foot carefully on a pre-selected spot.'"Immersed in the details of the war, it comes to seem incredibly remote from life in the present. Even when Atkinson describes what happened to various notable generals after the war, it is difficult to comprehend that they ever had lives outside of it, so total and suffocating was their experience. The same can be said of the enlisted men and the soldiers all the way up the chain of command. Perhaps Atkinson's greatest accomplishment is to induce readers now, generations removed from World War II, to marvel at the realities of the fighting and suffering that went on in many now barely remembered corners of the world.
Rebecca Schuman argues in an essay for Slate that extraordinarily long course syllabi are killing the college classroom. If it’s academic homicide you’re after, you might also want to check out Cathy Day’s piece for The Millions in which she suggests that academia might just be killing the novel, too.
I've written often of books about baseball (especially ones by Roger Angell). Baseball values words over images - I prefer listening to games on the radio to watching them on television, for example - and so lends itself well to the page. Football is a different story, entirely. If one doesn't see these men bash each other on cold, gray Sunday afternoons, then what's the point really? Reading about a spectacle kind of defeats the purpose. And this probably explains why there isn't much "football literature" to speak of. The only football book I've ever read is George Plimpton's Paper Lion, which, though terrific, is really more about Plimpton than football. Most of the other football books I've seen have been the ghostwritten memoirs of retired Hall of Famers. But the Washington Post's Jonathan Yardley, in his series which "reconsiders notable and/or neglected books from the past" recently wrote about a football book that deserves to sit amongst all those baseball books on the shelves of sports literature. Instant Replay was a collaboration between Jerry Kramer, a guard for the Green Bay Packers in the 1960s, and Dick Schaap, a sportswriter. By unlikely but entirely happy coincidence, Kramer had been persuaded to keep a diary of his 1967 season by Dick Schaap, an uncommonly capable and convivial sports journalist. Schaap knew that Kramer was intelligent, literate, observant and thoughtful, and suspected -- rightly -- that he could provide a unique view of pro football from its innermost trenches: the offensive line.The book sounds like a treat for any football fan, especially at this time of year.
"By now, you are probably asking yourself, Did these two ever talk about anything serious? Of course, we did. We talked about how writing a poem is no different from taking out a frying pan and concocting a dish out of the ingredients available in the house, how in poetry, as in cooking, it’s all a matter of subtle little touches that come from long experience or are the result of sudden inspiration." Charles Simic writes movingly about his friend, the late poet Mark Strand, and their various schemes, from buying palazzos to founding a gastronomic poetry movement, for The New York Review of Books.